Local government deserves real power

The issue of local versus national interest has been a perennial theme surrounding local government ever since the first local clan chief came up against a king seeking more cash to pay for his next war, probably some time in the Dark Ages. After I spoke recently at the Association of London Government conference, several councillors wanted to discuss their particular problems. Many had only been elected for the first time in May and were still finding their feet, but a common theme of what they had to say was the desire for more power at a local level.

In their case, it was often fears about what the mayor or Transport for London might impose on their particular patch. So now, with the creation of regional government in London and soon elsewhere, there is another opportunity for conflict between layers of government. Indeed, this issue was tested in the courts recently when Westminster council, in true Nimby tradition, tried to prevent Ken Livingstone’s congestion charging scheme from going ahead, arguing that there had been insufficient consultation and that an environmental assessment study had not been carried out. No chance, said the judge finding so unequivocally in Livingstone’s favour that Westminster ratepayers might want to know exactly what their councillors had been up to in challenging the decision.

A few days earlier, Livingstone had lost equally convincingly in the High Court over the issue of government plans to push through the Public Private Partnership for the Tube. This time it was regional versus national government with again the lower tier being comprehensively defeated in court, to such an extent that Transport for London gave up the ghost half way through the hearing when it became clear that the judge was going to rule out most of its key arguments. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 was unequivocal. The government had the right to sign up to the PPP on behalf of Transport for London, whatever the protestations of the Mayor who would eventually be forced to live what was set out in the contracts.

These results are hardly surprising. The British constitution and, in particular, legislation on local government, has always tended to retain real power for the central government. Occasionally ministers have deigned to grant a few baubles to local authorities but have usually kept most of the power, especially the purse strings, themselves. Local government is a creature of statute derived from laws created by central government.

But will the new regional bodies which John Prescott is so keen to create be different? But these two court cases demonstrate central government’s Janus-like attitude on this question. The law seems to be saying, by all means tread over the local authorities below you because otherwise you will not be able to do anything that affects even small groups adversely, but don’t try to mess with us.

If that is the basis on which the regional bodies are created, they will fail. It is only by being allowed to part company with national policy that they will be able to carve out regional policies that are appropriate for local people.

But what if they make mistakes? There have been two classic examples recently of local authority blunders, both interestingly from the North East or thereabouts where the demand for a regional body has been the strongest. (As an aside, there is clearly an immutable law here that the further a region is away from the capital, the more it will seek autonomy.)

In Newcastle, the local authority made a grave error in publishing a report about two nursery nurses who had been acquitted in the criminal courts of abusing children in their care. Despite their acquittal in a trial at which the judge stressed there was no evidence against them, the council went ahead in publishing its review team’s report which baldly stated that the two were guilty of abuse irrespective of the result of the criminal proceedings. The two sued for libel and in July were awarded six figure damages after a ten week trial.

Hull’s mistake was to squander much of the £263m it had earned through the sale of its telecommunications company, Kingston, in 1999. The council had been canny in disposing of the company at just the right time in the telecommunications and internet boom of that year but they were less clever at spending the money, much of which went on refurbishing and fitting double glazing on council housing for which there is no demand.

There have been calls for central government to take over the running of Hull but local government minister resisted doing this, overriding the Audit Commission’s advice.

He was right to do so. In both these examples, the councils concerned have made fundamental errors. But, this does not mean to say that they should not have had the power to make those errors in the first place. The good decisions which local authorities make daily do not attract national attention like these cases. The whole point of devolving power is not to retain it! It will be interesting to see if John Prescott, for whom, of course, Hull is his backyard, will be brave enough to ensure that happens when his cherished regional assemblies finally see the light of day.

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